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‘Best’ time to prune Japanese maples or risk ‘weakening’ the plant for good


Pruning aims to selectively remove dead and diseased branches from a plant, shrub or tree to encourage healthy growth.

While it may seem like an easy task, pruning wrong can lead to a lot of issues, including killing off the plant.

However, according to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), now is a great time to prune acer plants.

They explained: “Japanese maples naturally have an elegant shape and, when bought, usually require very little pruning other than removing any winter dieback at the end of the shoots.

“If young trees produce a strong vertical shoot this can be pruned back to a side branch in late autumn.

“Japanese maples are best pruned when fully dormant, as maples bleed sap from pruning cuts at other times, weakening the tree.”

They tend to lie dormant between November and January, making December a brilliant time to prune them.

However, pruning is still best kept to a minimum as the most “graceful shape” comes from a tree which has been allowed to develop naturally.

The experts continued: “As a result, just remove badly-placed or crossing shoots to encourage a good framework of branches to grow.

“Where you do need to reduce height and width, follow long branches back to a side branch and prune it out at this point.

“This is not necessary on prostrate-growing trees because they should be allowed to spread naturally to gain the best effect.

“Always prune back to a well-placed side branch. Do not leave a stub as this is often prone to decay and dieback.”

When pruning, gardeners should make sure they use clean and very sharp secateurs to make clean cuts.

The experts recommended pruning young acer trees to around 16 inches in the first winter.

To do so, make cuts just above two pairs of strong shoots. After this initial winter prune, the RHS said to shorten these shoots by about a third to encourage them to branch in the spring.

In the second winter, prune out dead or damaged shoots while shortening the main shoots. In the following winter, remove very low branches and shoots growing into the centre of the tree.

For gardeners who wish to plant acers, now is also the best time to do so. The RHS explained: “Plant from early autumn through winter, so typically October to March. 

“These slow-growing small trees are ideal for smaller gardens, but can make a great feature in any garden.”

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